This book is King’s autobiography disguised as a book about writing.
I enjoyed it cover to cover. It becomes clear early on that King is a master of words but is also human, with worries, dreams, frustrations, and problems.
What he mentions about writing can be easily transferred to any craft. He advocates for a lot of consistent work (he goes to say that he recommends an aspiring writer to write 6 to 8 hours per day) and a lot of reading.
The most surprising bit to me was that he thinks the writer’s path is pre-established. In a world where the debate of nurture vs. natures rages on, King explains that it is possible, through lots of work, to become a good writer when one is just an average one, but no amount of work will make a bad writer a great one. I think that the reality is more nuanced.
Overall, this is now one of my favorite autobiographies that I’ll be revisiting often.
Notes & Highlights#
(A brief history of King. How he got to be a writer and his poor upbringing.)
I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will. The equipment comes with the original package… I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened.
Imitation preceded creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word in my Blue Horse table, sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.
TV came relatively late to the King household, and I’m glad. I am, when you stop to think of it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit.
There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty s ky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
When you’re still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.
If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.
I tend to go through periods of idleness followed by periods of workaholic frenzy.
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not in the story”.
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it.
Our marriage has outlasted all of the world’s leaders except for Castro, and if we keep talking, arguing, making love, and dancing to the Ramones—gabba-gabba-hey—it’ll probably keep working
While I believe in God I have no use for organized religion
Good writing can be simultaneously intoxicating and idea-driven. If stone-sober people can fuck like they’re out of their minds—can actually be out of their minds while caught in that throe—why shouldn’t writers be able to go bonkers and still stay sane?
We had a lot of happiness in those days, but we were scared a lot, too.
Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.
For me writing has always been best when it’s intimate, as sexy as skin on skin.
Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you need to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
Before it occurred to me that I might actually need an agent, I had generated well over three million dollars' worth of income, a good deal of it for the publisher.
Telling an alcoholic to control his drinking is like telling a guy suffering the world’s most cataclysmic case of diarrhea to control his shitting.
I bargained, because that’s what addicts do. I was charming, because that’s what addicts are. In the end I got two weeks to think about it. In retrospect, this seems to summarize all the insanity of that time. Guy is standing on top of a burning building. Helicopter arrives, hovers, drops a rope ladder. Clim up! the mean leaning out of the helicopter’s door shouts. Guy on top of the burning building responds, Give me to weeks to think about it.
The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.
I never stopped writing.
Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself, why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.
Books are uniquely portable magic. I usually listen to one in the car and carry one wherever I go.
If I have to spend time in purgatory before going to one place or the other, I guess I’ll be alright as long as there' s a lending library (if there is it’s probably with nothing but novels by Danielle Steel and Chicken Soup books, ha-ha, joke’s on you, Steve).
You must not come lightly to the blank page
“It’s best to have your tools with you, If you don’t you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discourage”
The bread of writing, is vocabulary.
“It ain’t how much you’ve got honey, it’s how you use it”.
Don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.
The basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word but it probably won’t be as good as your first one.
Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; its' the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.
I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.
Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.
Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs—including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long—and lots of white space.
Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.
In expository prose, paragraphs can (and should) be neat and utilitarian. The ideal expository graf contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.
Writing is refined thinking. If your master’s thesis is no more organized than a high school essay titled “Wh Shania Twain Turns Me On,” you’re in big trouble.
Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction, If not so, why do so many couples who start the evening at dinner wind up in bed?
I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing—the place where coherence beings and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.
You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice; you have to learn the beat.
Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well—settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books—of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while driving thanks to the audiobook revolution.
If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
Reading takes time.
Turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing.
If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good.
The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them
The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.
Anthony Trollope’s wrote for two and a half hours each morning before leaving for work. This schedule was ironclad.
Mornings are my prime writing time.
I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words.
Only under circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.
The space can be humble, and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.
Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘til noon or seven ‘til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.
What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like (or love, the way I loved those old ECs and black-and-white horror flicks) in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues.
What you know makes you unique in some other way. Be brave. Map the enemy’s positions, come back, tell us all you know. And remember that plumbers in space is not such a bad setup for a story.
Talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character; it can also be a breath of cool, refreshing air in a room some people would prefer to keep shut.
Practice is invaluable (and should feel good, really, not like practice at all) and that honesty is indispensable. Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity.
I don’t believe a story or novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that’s reasonably reader-friendly.
It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not the pearl-making seminars with other oysters. resilience
Critiques force you to write with the door constantly open, and in my mind that sort of defeats the purpose.
You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself. These lessons almost always occur with the study door closed.
On Living: A Postscript#
- One of the things marriage is about is casting the tiebreaking vote when you can’t decide what you should do next.